Ancestry and genealogy have seen a recent boom in popularity. With a host of services available to those wanting to trace their lineage, the curious can swab their mouths, send their DNA away and have the past illuminated in six to eight weeks.
Matthew Larcinese of West Bloomfield has a different approach. Larcinese started Digging the Past Inc., a nonprofit that focuses on DNA and archival research to trace ancestry. The organization specifically looks at Y-DNA, which traces the paternal line. Coupled with archival materials such as wills and birth notices, Larcinese fleshes out a more complete picture of the past. Drinking with the locals is sometimes part of the process as well.
“I have these stages to my research,” Larcinese says. “Archives, DNA and Guinness stout.”
While researching his own family in Abruzzo, Italy, Larcinese made a surprising discovery. He found the last will and testament of an ancestor from 1580. The will indicated that the ancestor had significant wealth and owned a good deal of land.
“We didn’t know why, and we didn’t know how. We weren’t noble or royalty or anything like that,” Larcinese says.
Larcinese tested his own Y-DNA, which reveals common ancestors. He was then contacted by a DNA expert who told him about some of his forbearers.
“When I got my Y-DNA done, my matches were all Jewish,” says Larcinese, who previously thought he had no blood connection to Jews. “I had no concept of what was going on.”
Larcinese began more archival research this year. In April, he traveled to the town of Gessopalena where his ancestors lived as recently as the 1960s. Larcinese looked through books of property records and noticed that his family was showing up in the 1700s as land managers.
“Basically, they’re liquidators. If you can’t pay your taxes, they’re going to sell your land. At the same time, my family starts showing up as moneylenders and tax collectors,” Larcinese says.
Jews were commonly moneylenders and tax collectors during this period because the church forbid Christians to lend money to other Christians and charge interest.
Another revelation gave Larcinese pause. In his archival research, he noticed that the Larcinese line combined with another family called Jacobuccio in the 1500s. That surname is a derivative of Jacobi, a Jewish name that means “son of Jacob.”
Still more surprises were to come. An ancestry and genealogy enthusiast posted a Y-DNA family tree on an internet forum titled “The Levites of Europe” (a Levite is a descendant of Levi). Larcinese’s ancestors were grouped in the family tree.
During his last trip to Italy in the spring, Larcinese brought along 18 DNA kits to test people in Gessopalena.
“When the results came in, I posted them on the internet. The group administrators came back and said, ‘These guys are all Jewish,’” Larcinese says. “These 18 names parallel 18 names found in a Roman Jewish ghetto.”
There is a long history of Jews living in the region though the past is not entirely understood. About 4 miles from Gessopalena is a town called Roccascalegna, home to a 13th-century castle built by the Lombards, a Germanic kingdom. By the 14th century, they lost control of the castle, and part of the structure was rebuilt. During reconstruction, the gate tower was built with two stones depicting very rustic menorahs. Larcinese calls this the “mystery of Roccascalegna” because their origin cannot be fully explained.
“Fifteen miles from this town was a Jewish ghetto populated by tax collectors and money lenders. My goal is to find these families because I know they’re still there, and do a Y-DNA test on them,” Larcinese says. “Where is the synagogue? Where did they worship? That’s our next step.”
Debra Katz, a Jewish genealogy expert from Pacific Beach, Calif., has two decades of experience with genetic genealogical research and has corresponded with Larcinese regarding his projects. Katz isn’t surprised by his findings.
“Not only have there been Jews in Italy since pre-Christian times, but there was an especially substantial flow from ancient Judea to Italy during the early centuries [common era],” Katz says.
It is not uncommon for Jews to find their lineage traces back to Italy, she says. “This is because the historical flow of most Jews was from Judea to Spain and Italy, up to present-day Germany. Then, in the 15th and 16th centuries, following waves of Germanic anti-Semitism, a flow eastward into the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, which welcomed them at the time,” Katz says.
Katz used her father’s DNA to track her lineage and found she had ancestors living in Italy in the mid-1600s.
Larcinese doesn’t shy away from where his research leads him.
“I embrace anything that comes my way. A lot of people do, and I’m finding that out right now. I’m talking with some Americans who have ancestry in Gessopalena and they’re excited as well,” Larcinese says.
He even purchased land in Gessopalena where his family lived and kept orchards of olive trees. During his next trip, he plans on researching the area.
“I own some of the old ruins and homes that my family built,” Larcinese says. “They are marked by the patina of a bygone era.”
*This article was published in the Detroit Jewish News on January 3, 2018.